Post-Covid, Will Connections Be Scarcer?

A friend writes to say he’s been about the effects of “social distancing” policies. Will they have a permanent effect on our lives, he wondered. And will they impact events such as trade shows?

It wasn’t the first time I have been asked that of late. The subject also came up on a couple of podcasts I’ve had the good fortune to do, one with Judy Warner of Altium and the other with Mike Konrad of Aqueous Technologies.

My short answer is, I think there will be an impact, but it will swing toward more contact, not less. Indeed, after being cooped up for so long, I think people will crave human connections. Moreover, I don’t think it will have an effect on trade shows. In fact, I think this will reveal lots of holes/flaws in inter-/intra-company digital communications, which gives us all something to work on for the next quarantine (heaven forbid). 

We aren’t the only ones contemplating what happens next. The Boston Globe this week published a piece in which several self-styled business futurists and science-fiction writers expect the world will look like next fall/winter.

I can’t say I’m impressed with most of their responses, which if anything feel exaggerated for effect. But see for yourself.

How Does Turnkey PCB Assembly Reduce Turn Times?

You’ve probably heard of turnkey PCB assembly, an all-in-one solution design and specifications are sent to the PCB manufacturer and they return the assembled PCBs to you (or your client) ready to use. It sounds convenient compared to doing all the legwork yourself, or having one of your engineers do it, but did you know that turnkey assembly also offers the shortest possible lead times for PCBs?

Let’s take a look at some of the ways that turnkey PCB assembly can shave time off of the design process and reduce turnaround time.

It Saves Engineers Time

Turnkey assembly saves engineers time in a couple of important ways. First, time spent hunting for components and availability is eliminated. Manufacturers that offer turnkey assembly have teams dedicated to component sourcing. This also extends to component substitution and BoM management. If something isn’t available, your turnkey team will be able to deal with substitutions for you and check that all substitutions are compatible with the overall design.

Second, and maybe an even bigger time savings, is the reduced communication load. When an engineer is organizing multiple component suppliers, a PCB fabricator, an assembler, and shipping among all of them, keeping everything sailing smoothly can eat a lot of time. Keep your PCB designers focused on their main job—designing and revising PCBs.

That will mean that prototypes are designed, tested, and redesigned faster. No time spent following developments with assembly; no logistics work organizing the movement of boards or components between vendors.

With turnkey assembly, engineers have a single point of contact to deal with any and all questions related to the development of the product. They will keep you up-to-date on the process, and any changes that need to be made can be addressed quickly.

It Reduces Transportation Time (and Costs)

When dealing with multiple companies for every aspect of the production process, the time that goods spend moving from one stage to the next can really add up. Compare that with a turnkey assembly solution:

  • The PCB manufacturer already has ties with component suppliers and knows which parts to find from each one.
  • They have a store of common components already on hand and can handle component inventory storage for you.
  • The assembler is either in-house or nearby.

Instead of orchestrating businesses across borders and possibly continents, the entire process is localized, moving quickly from one stage to the next. That leaves shipping the final product as the only major shipping time.

There Are Fewer Quality Concerns

With a turnkey assembly solution, there are fewer quality concerns to deal with, especially when shipping between vendors.

In a multi-vendor scenario, if you instruct your PCB fabricator to ship your bare boards to an assembly house and they arrive with an error or a large percentage of damaged boards, your only option is to make a new order and wait. With turnkey assembly, this situation is impossible.

The company you deal with is responsible for your project from PCB creation to final testing, if they make a mistake with one step, they catch it and fix it in the next. As we mentioned before, you have a single contact or team within the manufacturer overseeing the progress of your order and checking for quality at each stage.

Not to mention, you’re dealing with a single organization. Internal teams are familiar with each other and have experience working together. Miscommunications and mix-ups are reduced and it’s in the manufacturer’s best interest to make sure that each stage supports the next and products move through the process as efficiently as possible.

Of course, it’s possible to run into a bad manufacturer, which could cause you even bigger problems than one bad vendor might. So, it’s important to vet your potential manufacturer carefully, and find reviews or references if possible.

Scale Up Quickly

The benefits go beyond the turnaround time for your initial prototype. Once you’re satisfied with your PCBs, the manufacturer can immediately start to produce them in quantity.

Think about it. Instead of juggling multiple suppliers and manufacturers to finish the prototypes and then searching for a manufacturer for production, you could finish prototyping quickly and move forward immediately with a company with which you have already developed a relationship.

Not all PCB manufacturers that offer turnkey assembly offer large-scale production, but if your needs fit with the manufacturer’s capacity, turnkey assembly could offer a truly seamless production process. Some manufacturers can even ship to clients for you or offer drop-shipping services.

With turnkey PCB assembly, you get a single, devoted team backing you up as you take a design from PCBs to working products. With less time spent on logistics and organization, you can expect much faster results. It could turn the design process around by reducing product turnaround.

Contributed by Chris Dickey, vice president of sales and marketing at SVTronics

UP Media Statement on Covid-19

Like all the companies we serve in the electronics design and manufacturing industry, we are closely watching the world’s response to Covid-19.

All UP MEDIA GROUP staff work remotely, and our operations should continue as normal. As of this notice, our websites, magazine issues, podcast and newsletter will be updated and published per the schedule in our 2020 Media Kit.

We currently intend to hold the PCB2Day workshops scheduled for June in Austin, TX. We will provide regular updates to all sponsors, speakers and registrants as the situation on the ground becomes clearer.

PCB West 2020 at the Santa Clara (CA) Convention Center remains on track to take place in September. Confirmation letters to speakers are being sent this week, and our conference program and registration will be available by early May.

The health of our employees, contributors and customers is paramount. We will take any measures to ensure we do not subject any staff, contributors or customers to unnecessary risks due to the coronavirus.

We are open and ready to serve you during these difficult times. Please contact Mike Buetow (mbuetow@upmediagroup.com) for editorial, Frances Stewart (fstewart@upmediagroup.com) for shows, and Brooke Anglin (banglin@upmediagroup.com) for advertising.

Sincerely,

UP MEDIA GROUP staff

ODMs-OEM Gap Narrows Further

OEMs have long been told that, as their suppliers, EMS companies would not compete with them.

Then EMS companies added design services. “We won’t compete with our customers.”

Then EMS companies added full turnkey services. “We won’t compete with our customers.”

Then EMS companies added logistics services. “We won’t compete with our customers.”

Then EMS companies started calling themselves ODMs.
We won’t compete with our customers.”

I think all pretenses are over. Check out this latest report from DigiTimes from the Embedded World trade show, where Pegatron exhibited an all-in-one dashboard for smart driving vehicles.

Still not competing? Think again.

Is the Supply Chain Holding On, or Holding Out?

Foxconn, for once, was probably the first company in the electronics manufacturing sector to acknowledge the looming financial hit from the coronavirus. Apple, which relies on the Taiwanese ODM for the majority (?) of its production, was naturally forced to follow.

Speak no evil?

Jabil and Plexus have now lowered near-term estimates, and market research firms are piling on, with IDC downgrading its outlook for smartphones and PCs and DigiTimes Research slashing its notebook shipment forecast by a third or more.

In a timely column on CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY, EMS expert Sue Mucha lays out a strategy for handling sharing bad news with suppliers and customers. “Transparency matters,” she says. “The goal shouldn’t be to paint a rosier picture than the situation dictatesThe goal is to fill the communications void and establish trust that your company will provide news as the situation evolves.”

That begs the question, why haven’t more firms come forth with sales or profit warnings? Are Apple, Foxconn, Jabil and Plexus the only ones that will be affected? Or are they simply the vanguard?

Coronavirus: Curse, or Blessing in Disguise?

I’m not one to make light of health epidemics, especially given that my college major was initially epidemiology. But the global slowdown in electronics demand — underscored by the earnings reports over the past couple months — is poised to worsen in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak, which started in China and has now reached more than a dozen more countries.

In response, businesses in Wuhan, the epicenter for the disease, have closed and Chinese government has effectively quarantined the entire city of 11 million. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei province, and between the two entities there are roughly 1,500 factories and related facilities.

Among the electronics manufacturers affected at ground zero are Avnet, Siemens, and Foxconn. After Hubei issued a mandatory shutdown notice, Foxconn furloughed more than 13,000 workers at its campus there. (The plant generates an estimated $300 million in revenue per year.)

As the disease spreads, so too have the shutdowns. IMI announced last night it is suspending operations at plants in Shenzhen, Jiaxing, Chengdu and Suzhou. The furloughs will last up to several days.

While electronics assembly plants can be brought back up to speed fairly quickly, the impact missing even a few days of revenues will be felt in the quarterly results. And here’s the possible silver lining.

Many companies have been reporting weaker results in the most recent quarter. For instance, Celestica’s revenues were down 14%, Amphenol’s dropped 3.3%, and Sanmina’s were off 16%. TTM went so far as to sell its entire mobility unit. Plexus saw sales rise, but is cutting an entire design unit. (UPDATE: Flex reported sales down 7%, adding to our picture of how widespread the weakness is.) Often the US-based firms see a slowdown in presidential election years as OEMs take conservative approaches to ordering ahead of potential administration changes. The outbreak, deadly and unwished for as it is, gives cover to management for any recurring revenue drops, at least for a quarter or two, and perhaps longer if the coronavirus gains a wider foothold. A cynical view, to be sure, but hardly an unrealistic one.

We need only look back to 2003, when the SARS outbreak came on the heels of a worldwide business slowdown and according to one analyst “accelerated that downturn and spread it to many other countries in Asia.”

Already, airlines are bracing for lower capacity utilization and Asian firms are fearing the worst as businesses enact travel restrictions. Again as with SARS, the timing comes as Asia (and most of the world’s major economies) is experiencing tepid growth, and the best way to stop a recovery in its tracks is to sever the flow of goods and services.

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope this virus burns out fast.

For Tom Hicks, Like Father Like Son?

Those who have been in the PCB industry since at least 2001 will likely remember the New York buyout firm known as Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst. Better known as Hicks, Muse, they laid waste to the industry, buying up the largest fabrication shops like AT&T’s 400,000 sq. ft. plant in Richmond for dollars on the penny (you read that right), then attempting the same with EMS, before watching it all fall to pieces with multiple bankruptcies and revaluations. (The entity known as Viasystems eventually landed under the control of Tim Conlon, a highly capable executive who right-sized the company and made it profitable enough to sell to TTM in 2015.)

One of the beneficiaries of the merger mania in the late 1990s and early 2000s was Bob Herring.

Not once but twice, Herring built up and sold printed circuit board fabricators to larger bidders. The latter time, Herring sold Herco Technology and a second firm, Synthane Taylor, to Teradyne for about $122 million in stock.

You know how this ends. Teradyne’s stock collapsed, Herco was shuttered, and then came the lawsuits.

Herring later turned his sights to media, launching a news network that is popular in certain segments of the American public.

Tom Hicks of Hicks, Muse turned his sights on sports, buying — and bankrupting — the Dallas Stars hockey team and Texas Rangers baseball team, among others.

Tom Hicks’s son is now in the game. Under the eponymous billing of Hicks Equity Partners, Tom Hicks Jr. is apparently attempting to corral fellow money-men to pony up about $250 million to a certain news network.

And who owns One America? Bob Herring.

As the safe harbor warning every equities firm is obligated to announce says, past performance does not guarantee future results. But if I were one of Junior’s friends, I’d keep wallet in my pocket.

AR/VR: What’s New?

CES 2020 offers the latest augmented and virtual reality technology, creating immersive experiences across industries from health care to agriculture and manufacturing to retail.

The latest in AR/VR technology from CES 2020.

At AltiumLive, Lots of Sun (and One Big Cloud)

by Brooke Anglin

One of the first things I heard when I arrive at AltiumLive last week was was how much they loved the recap of the event my colleague Chelsey Drysdale wrote last year. They added that Chelsey truly captured what AltiumLive is about. Talk about pressure!

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Piano Arc contains a total of 12 PCBs.

Drinks are on Them. The week (well, three days, but they really pack a lot in!) kicked off with a great reception on an outside terrace at the Loews Coronado Bay Resort.  Dave Starkey, the engineer who designed and built the Piano Arc — the circular piano used by Lady Gaga’s pianist, among others — was there. So was the pianist. They displayed the unit, a 360-degree custom keyboard, with one of the panels removed, exposing the PCBs.  Altium director of community engagement Judy Warner met Dave at a user group meeting in San Diego, heard his story and recruited him for the event.  In case anyone wants to know the piano has 288 keys, a total of 12 circuit boards and only cost $57,000.

I saw our customary PCB West speakers Suzy Webb, Rick Hartley, Gary Ferrari and Eric Bogatin and met a lot of engineers.

Getting Younger. One of the things you note about AltiumLive is the demographics. It’s a younger crowd than you typically see at industry events. Eric Bogatin noted this in the first keynote (AltiumLive had not one, not two but three keynotes). He brought some of his students, had them stand up for recognition and encouraged hiring companies to talk to them.  That drew a good laugh from the crowd.  In his talk, he pointed out that while many designers will be retiring in the next 10 years, AltiumLive gives us reason to think a new generation is coming on strong.

Keynote #2 featured a celebrity from outside our industry. Jor Grand of Grand Idea Studio has a short-lived TV show called Prototype This! on the Discovery channel. The concept, which was similar to Mythbusters, was about the viability of gadgets and technology and how engineers feel a since of winning when a product doesn’t work the first time, but they don’t give up until their creation finally works successfully.  While the show lasted only one season, Grand shared several clips and generated lots of laughs.

Finally, the main event: Altium rolled out its much-anticipated Altium Designer 20 ECAD. VP of marketing Lawrence Romine detailed the new “push and shove” capabilities that enable routing of complex HDI boards and ramp up design times over 20%. (For more on the tool, click here.)

Cloud in their Eyes. This was the third year of AltiumLive, and the multi-city event (another is being held in Frankfurt this week) draws 500 designers. The company grow is equally impressive. Last year 2018 Altium saw over 8,000 new users for its Designer PCB CAD tool, and on average Altium users do over 10 designs a year.

Looking ahead, Altium wants to move toward the cloud, something the industry has been avoiding for years. Its has added real-time collaboration, and hopes to bridge the gap between manufacturers and designers.

Not surprisingly then, AltiumLive focused as much on tomorrow as on today. The highlight of the event was the Robot Build and Battle. Attendees split into teams of six or more. Ours had nine; eight engineers, from all of the country, and me. I was cheerleader, motivator and general handyperson. (They said I sounded like each of their bosses … I beg to differ!) Team Sierra beat last year’s record, but we weren’t far behind.  Amit Bahl of Sierra Circuits told me he didn’t realize just how geeky our industry was until the robot build. Such a fun and educational event!

Brooke Anglin is senior sales associate with PCD&F/CIRCUITS ASSEMBLY.